Interview; Michelin man

Suzanne Moore has designs on Sir Terence Conran

When I tell my 13-year-old daughter, who is deeply unimpressed by most of what I do, that I am off to meet Terence Conran - the man who invented Habitat - her reaction surprises me. "Cool," she says. "That's really cool." What shall I ask him then? "Can you get a discount?" she answers quick as a flash. I think perhaps that wouldn't be cool but I must admit it was in the back of my mind all during lunch.

I meet him in the little part of London that he has colonised: Butlers Wharf. There he lives in a Conran village, containing his HQ, shops, restaurants, offices and, on top, his airy apartment. Just round the corner is the Design Museum. In his loft, stacked with beautiful things, I am relieved to see ashtrays with cigar butts lying in the midst of all this pristine tastefulness.

Sir Terence is having his photo taken and chatting to the photographer, who has lost an eye, about how he, too, can only see out of one eye. The eye that works, however, has served him well. It is this eye that has changed the way we live and, to some extent, the way we see ourselves. It is this eye that saw how he could do with restaurants what he had already done with home furnishings. It is this eye that has made him rich, and this eye never stops looking.

On the way to his Cantina restaurant, he stoops to pick up an old coat hanger lying in the street and deposits it into a waste paper bin. On the way back, he picks up some beer bottles lined up in a row outside the Design Museum. "I seem to have taken to rubbish collecting in my old age," he muses. This litter clearly disturbs him. But he picks it up, one feels, not so much out of civic duty, but because it doesn't look right.

He is clearly tired but gearing up for the opening of his new shop in Marylebone High Street. It comes with its own restaurant, The Orrery, and has been three years in the planning. The local residents have been disturbed, apparently, not just by the building work but, "because they thought we were going to build a huge restaurant and have drunken yobs spilling out. It's not like that at all. It's a small restaurant, with 80 seats, that is of high quality and entirely suitable to the neighbourhood. The price of property around there has gone up 20 per cent. I hoped I might get some messages saying, `thank-you very much'." But he hasn't and sounded quite hurt about it, which seems strange for a businessman with successful shops in Japan and Germany and restaurants springing up everywhere.

Conran employs 1,800 in the UK. He feeds 35,000 people a week in his restaurants, and 15,000 a week visit his shops. There is, amongst restaurant critics, a mini-backlash against Conran for introducing such large-scale restaurants to London. People like the London Evening Standard's Fay Maschler are now railing against the "noisy anonymity" of his restaurants. There is a certain amount of snobbery involved, because in these giant gastrodomes there exists a classlessness and hedonism that some find unattractive. It is all about social exchange - the kind of social exchange that Conran feels is lacking in much daily life. "They should be places that make life more interesting, more easy, more fun. Most people, these days, sit in front of screens. The social life they used to have in restaurants is not there. At home, they sit in front of the TV with their telly dinners and play with their Internet, but restaurants are one of the few places you can have that social interaction. Someone asked me the other day, `What makes a successful restaurant?' I said that food is the most important thing, then the service, then the look of the place and the buzz you get when people are having a good time. And they said, `What about eavesdropping?' And I thought that was a very good point."

Inspired by the huge brasseries in Paris, where he liked the fact that there was "a whole range of different people and always something to look at", Conran thinks he has added something to London life as well as to the Parisian formula: "It sounds big-headed, but I think the food in them is better."

Conran has in the past been accused of egomania, most famously by a judge in his divorce case earlier this year commenting on his wife's contribution to the business. Mr Justice Wilson awarded the third Mrs Conran, Lady Caroline, a pounds 10.5 million settlement, including a pounds 6.2m lump sum and homes in Dorset and London. Summing up, the judge remarked: "It can be difficult for a man with a healthy ego who has achieved vertiginous success to look down and discern a contribution other than his own." Afterwards, Conran said: "The figure is unbelievable. Just because she cooked a few meals now and then and wrote a few books. I taught her how to cook." Yet in many ways, he has a right to be big- headed, for he has made an empire out of his singular vision about the way life should be.

The only time during lunch where he prickles is when I ask him if anyone has ever tried to make him do market research "Make me? Make me?" he repeats, seemingly incredulous at the idea that anyone could make him do anything.

"Market research only tells you history. It doesn't tell you what we will want in the future. If you only show someone red dresses, they will say they want a red dress," he says, looking at my red jacket. "Perhaps that's because they haven't seen a grey one." He sees himself as a good observer, but if anything he is a collector. As a boy, he made collections of butterflies, and beetles and wild flowers. He knows how to bring things together.

"People don't always know what they want till they are offered it. I see my role as seeing something that works terribly well in one place and seeing if it can improve the quality of life here."

"Quality of life" and "having a good time" are phrases that Conran uses over and over again. Described once as a "lapsed modernist", Conran's design for living came along at exactly the right time. "I was lucky to be there at a time when people needed to change. My career began in the Fifties, a time of huge social change. Lots of the world was changing and thinking about the way it wanted to live. I was able to contribute. If I'd been born in Victorian England, I don't know if I would have had the ability of a William Morris to stand apart in a very lonely way and make it happen."

He identifies with Morris in some ways, though he is not as interested in crafts, but if he has an underlying philosophy it is that of the Bauhaus school. Influenced by the Bauhaus notion of anti-elitism, Conran domesticated modernism so that it seemed a little less frightening. By combining the contemporary with what felt at the time exotically European, Conran modernised that most defended of spaces - the British living room. In rearranging our furniture, we helped rearrange our relationship to the rest of the world. We went abroad, and instead of returning with knick-knacks for the mantelpiece, we tried to recreate the whole atmosphere.

Conran is now selling us a version of ourselves as Parisian bon viveurs, as sophisticated restaurant-goers who know about food. It's all very flattering really and certainly the diners at the next table in the Cantina were having a good time, braying and shouting. "It would be very difficult for them to go to a small restaurant wouldn't it," says Sir Terence, who for "a ghastly moment" thinks the waiter has taken away his cigar. How does he cope with the anti-smoking/drinking/red meat lobby, I ask this man who has a reputation for voracious appetites in every area of his life.

"I believe that people should be allowed to choose what they do. If you don't want to eat red meat, smoke or drink, then don't drink, don't smoke, don't fuck... I'm not a puritan. I'm all for people doing what they want to, as long as they stay more or less within the law. I would agree with [Independent on Sunday editor] Rosie Boycott, though, that if people want to smoke a joint, then it doesn't do any more harm than... this," he says, gesturing to his glass of wine. Did he say this to his own children? "I said, for Gods sake don't use hard drugs. Some of them probably have, but as you will discover, you don't get very far forbidding children things."

Although his detractors may see Conran as a style fascist, his attitude is remarkably non-prescriptive. He doesn't think all restaurants should be big because some of his are. His favourite restaurant in France only has eight tables. He says he would hate to walk into a house entirely furnished from the Conran Shop: "I'd like to see some things, of course I would, but if it was all Conran, it would be as if that person hadn't really thought at all about their own way of life. It's like being a walking advertisement or Gucci or someone like that." He thinks living space shouldn't be pre-ordained. People should think about how they use their space, which is why he favours lofts, with screening so the space can adapt as the family develops.

I wonder if he is ever appalled at people's taste. "If I walk into someone's house and I don't like it, it usually means I don't like them. I can go into people's houses which are enormously cluttered and chintzed-up and like them because that sort of person has got that particular style. It's the dull places that I don't like, where there is no feeling of care or humanity or charm."

As the food arrives, we discuss the Spice Girls. "I always knew they were wonderful from the beginning," he jokes, "and what it's like to be a grandfather." He doesn't much like changing nappies, but says he did it for his children. He would rather talk professionally about this than personally. "You have to remember that I once ran Mothercare, so I have a certain kind of expertise about, er... nappies."

He shows me a list he has made the night before of Leopold Bloom's favourite dishes - "He was a great offal eater, you know" - and talks of the Millennium Dome. He wanted something built that was for the future: "What I wanted to see was a new town that predicted what was going to happen. Afterwards, people could come and live in it. We might have things like Microsoft sponsoring a school of the future and maybe Ford looking at new methods of transport and Sainsbury's predicting how shopping might be. New ideas with the very best modern architecture so it didn't look like the sort of town Prince Charles might dream about." He hopes it won't all be a disaster and that the dome will actually be built in time

Later on, he adds mischievously that one of his ideas for the millennium would be to take derelict sites -"that includes most of south London, the edges of railway lines, that sort of thing, and put up neat little notices that say `Part of the Charles Saatchi collection'."

At 66, he is still overflowing with ideas. When is he going to retire? He looks horrified: "I hope I die with an unfinished project on the go." He works, he explains to me, every day. I look horrified. Hasn't he thought of down-shifting? "No." He has no hobbies outside work and work is his hobby, his pleasure. His attitude to work seems rather old-fashioned, but I guess you can't be modern all the time.

I can see that he is never not working. He tells me of driving to his place in the country and turning off the M4. He has counted the number of signs on the slip road, there are 23, and he thinks that is far too many. He wants to get rid of all unnecessary signs. It's as if he wants to streamline the "non-environment" of a slip road, make it more functional, get rid of superfluity.

He has made such obsessions work for him, with all the contradictions of his life fuelling his game plan. For here is a macho man who has taken over the feminine world of shopping and cooking. Here is a man who talks endlessly about the quality of life but is a workaholic, and here is man who has democratised taste for the masses: who preaches an eminently seductive and civilised lifestyle that is - when it all comes down to it - all about consuming, about buying yet more stuff.

He tells me a story about an estate agent trying to get into heaven. When he is finally let in to polish the angels wings, it is all a bit boring. No smoking or drinking, all vegetarian food... He asks to look at hell, which is much more like it. "People smoking and drinking and having a good time. Girls with mini-skirts and seams down the back of their stockings." Sir Terence's eyes light up. The estate agent asks St Peter if he can go to hell. When he does, he is thrown into a dark hole and manacled to the wall. "What about the other place, the one you showed me?" he begs. "Ah, that was the show-flat," replies St Peter.

As Conran laughs at this, I think that this is what he had done, too. He has provided an enormous show flat. His shops, his restaurants, show you a way of life, another life. Most of us buy little pieces of it in the hope that we'll get there one day and, when we do, that it will be all that is cracked up to be. Just like heaven

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